When I was a schoolboy and French lessons were devoted to designing 750 specials with a copy of the Club’s regs close at hand, and the only serious point of difference between a like-minded pal and I was who was going to be World Champion first, then the small ads in Motor Sport opened a world of possibilities. Those were the days when suppliers of bodies and components were part of the mainstream of activity: Falcon, Speedex, Aquaplane, Derrington, Cambridge, Ashley, Heron, Microplas, Rochdale, Dante, hosts of small companies offered bodies, alloy heads, front axle conversions, manifolds and woodrimmed steering wheels.
Colin Chapman may have been the hero of the little group of wastrels to which I belonged but we knew that building a Lotus was light years away. These other firms, however, peddled more accessible dreams since the cars were based on Austin Sevens or Ford Tens and not only could these be bought for a tenner but most of us had held £10 in our hands and so knew that our dreams had a solid basis whereas the cost of a Lotus, for the forseeable future at any rate, was the stuff of fantasy.
Between Lotus and these more immediately accessible companies was another, Buckler. Derek Buckler offered a range of good quality spaceframes and every possible component to make a Ford Ten into a sporting car. The late ’50s, the time of which I write, was a time of an extraordinary growth in what we would now call the “kit car” market, and much of the credit for pioneering the trend belongs to Derek Buckler – I certainly cannot think of anyone who offered a kit car before him.
By the end of the ’50s, however, Buckler Cars was in decline. As we will see, there were a number of fundamental reasons for this, but the obvious one was that the market became saturated as more and more hopefuls marketed their products, most of them pretty short-lived.
The unique position which Buckler Cars had occupied for so long was swamped by the newcomers, many of whom undercut the pioneer in price though, as many customers found out the hard way, they were frequently cheaper but not Jess expensive. On the other hand, the products of firms such as Elva and Lotus, both of which had begun by supplying components to special builders, were clearly superior for serious competition work.
Derek Buckler’s motivation was neither commerce nor ultimate competition success. He was a man with a particular vision. I like to think that had he known of the schoolboy dreams of our little circle, even though they centred around winning the F750 Championship, he would have been pleased for, in a sense, Derek’s pioneering work had made such dreams an outside possibility.
Chad Buckler, his eldest son, recalls: “Quite suddenly, around 1946/’47, my father was struck by the germ of an idea and I noticed that he started to drive his Ford Ten quicker than usual and to look for ways to improve it. L. M. Ballamy had produced a split axle ifs system for the Ford Ten but my father felt he hadn’t done it right and so set about designing his own. Having done that, it was a small step to designing a whole car.
“You call it a vision, and it probably was that, though he never used the word, but he did talk to me constantly about it. His idea was to put the possibility of competition driving within the reach of almost everyone prepared to put time and a little money into it. He was a great admirer of Henry Ford, we had lots of books on Ford in the house, and whereas Ford brought motoring to all, Dad wanted in his own smaller way to give the chance of competition motoring to all.”
Derek Buckler was born in 1910 and left school at 14 to work for his father’s motor engineering firm, Frank Butler Ltd, in London, before being articled to a firm of solicitors. Although Buckler had a good legal mind he left the law in 1932 to take up the position of Transport and Sales Director with another family business, Watford Dairies. Apparently he displayed a remarkable flair for organisation and became the company’s Sales Organiser in 1938.
Derek’s father died in 1938 and together with his brother, Murray, inherited Johnson Roberts Ltd, engineers to the motor trade. The dairy business closed during the war but the brothers had already bought a similar service engineering company, the Barkus Aircraft and Motor Manufacturing Company in Reading and, shortly afterwards, Welco Farm Implements, manufacturers of hammer mills for grinding corn, was added to the group. After working for the war effort, the brothers went their separate ways, Murray taking over Johnson Roberts Ltd, and Derek taking Barkus and Welco.
Hammer mills for grinding corn seem to have received a blow soon afterwards and Welco ceased trading. The Welco works, still owned by Derek’s widow, became the location of Buckler Cars Ltd, which was established in 1947. The grandly named Barkus Aircraft and Motor Mfg Co became simply “Bucklers” in 1949 and continued to grind crankshafts, re-bore blocks and so on.
All Buckler cars had multi-tube chassis, and Derek was an early pioneer of the spaceframe as applied to cars. The principle had been long established in the aircraft industry and certainly Cisitalia had built space frame chassis before Buckler. Still, Buckler Cars was probably the first company to market them.
When his first car (reg DDP 201) was nearly complete, Derek spent some time testing it on the open road and his law background came in handy when he was frequently stopped by policemen who felt sure there must be some law against driving about in a bare chassis! Finally DDP 201 was fitted with a simple cycle-winged body.
Apart from low cost, Buckler’s aims were to build a car with excellent handling characteristics, good acceleration and fuel economy. Maximum performance was not something he was unduly worried about for real performance is the time it takes to cover the ground from A to B and not some theoretical top speed. He reasoned that if you didn’t keep having to slow for bends, you could achieve fast times without recourse to expensive and uneconomical engines.
Buckler identified his main performance areas as strength (his frames have weathered the years very well), lightweight, and chassis rigidity and these features characterised all his designs. Later he became the first of the small British special builders to pay serious attention to achieving low drag. The simple shape of the Buckler Ninety was not only slippery but the attention paid to the small radiator orifice pre-dated the designs Frank Costin did for Lotus. This work on aerodynamics came as a result of consultation with Charles Bulmer who, at the time, was Technical Editor of The Motor.
The earliest published reference to Buckler appears in C. A. N. Mays’ book, “More Wheelspin” where DDP 201 is called the “Buckler-Colonial”, though nobody seems to know why “Colonial”. This car enjoyed an astonishingly varied and successful competition career in Derek’s hands. It would be fitted with a supercharger and raced on a Saturday and next day, without a supercharger and with a different set of gear ratios, would be entered for a “mud-plugging” trial. Nobody could call it handsome, but it worked and with it Derek gained many of the 200 or so awards he won until heart trouble forced him to retire from the sport. Sadly the car was stolen and scrapped a few years ago though Buckler enthusiasts, Peter Silverthorne and Stan Hibberd, whose help has been invaluable in preparing this article, were able to have the registration number transferred to another Buckler.
In 1949, Buckler began to sell replica chassis which he called the “Mk V” on the grounds that it sounded as though the firm had been around for a little time and was not a “fly by night” operation. The company records were lost or destroyed some time after it changed hands around 1960 but it is possible that total production of the Mk V and Mk VI chassis (the V was based on Ford E93A components, while the VI, based on Ford E493A “Prefect” parts, had a longer wheelbase to accommodate the latter’s longer torque tube) reached 100. Total production of all Buckler models seems to be in the region of 400-500 but only around 90 are known to exist in any form, most are in need of serious work and little more than a dozen are currently in full running trim in the UK.
Throughout Buckler’s advertising material one finds economy stressed, not only in terms of cost of construction (in 1951, a Buckler V built from wholly new parts and finished with a professionally built body, cost Â£475) but also in terms of fuel, 40-50 mpg being claimed as an excellent reason for converting a secondhand Ford Ten into a sports car. These figures were outstanding for the day and underlying that they were not picked out of the air, Derek won the 1953 Cheltenham MC National Road Fuel Economy Contest at an average consumption of 91.023 mpg and returned 86.6 mpg the following year, winning outright again.
With his own skill and a sound engineering firm in harness, Buckler was soon able to offer a special builder a wide variety of essential and relatively inexpensive equipment, ifs conversions, close ratio gears, performance camshafts, remote gear controls, high compression gaskets and manifolds as well as more mundane items such as switches and seat squabs. The remarkable thing was that most components were made in-house.
Although almost everything could be bought from Buckler, there were two exceptions. The first omission was a hydraulic brake conversion, for Buckler felt that Ford’s mechanical brakes were simple, light and effective when allied to his cars’ light weight. This was not a view wholeheartedly shared by those who raced the cars in the middle to late Fifties.
The other main item which Derek never produced was a Buckler-made body. The frames were designed so that it was not difficult for a competent handyman to build his own shell and companies such as C. F. Taylor and Johnnie Offord (the present occupier of the Welco works) had an arrangement with Buckler to supply customers with bodies. Although all the Buckler Nineties looked the same, and the frame and panels were designed in conjunction with each other, Buckler steadfastly refused to build bodies though he listed Offord’s and Taylor’s bodies in his catalogues. Later, the New Zealand distributor sold Bucklers with a locallymade fibreglass body.
The reason for this refusal to provide a whole car is to be found jointly in Buckler’s legal training and the law regarding purchase tax at the time. It will be remembered that purchase tax often added 50% or more to the cost of a new car but specials built for the maker’s use were exempt. Buckler felt that building components which could be made into a complete car infringed the law. Other makers believed otherwise and Lotus, for example, continued supplying kits of all kinds of models for years. This purchase tax loophole was, for a while, a highly contentious one and it was certainly raised in Parliament on a number of occasions in the late Fifties. As first in the field, it is possible that Derek felt himself to be in a vulnerable position but it is more likely that he felt that the firms who exploited the tax loophole were simply not playing cricket.
As an aside, it must be said that some other companies did make complete cars which went through the books as “kits”. Some made more cars than were officially acknowledged. Not every chassis plate of the time was strictly accurate or even, in some cases, put on a car. One small manufacturer (now a most respected citizen) even managed to change all the plates on his car in the five minutes from seeing a man from Customs and Excise approach his workshop to the time that gentleman walked through the door on what was supposed to have been a surprise visit! The stories are legion. Had Buckler been as cavalier as some of his contemporaries, his company might have survived longer.
In taking the stand that he did, Buckler began to sow the seeds of his firm’s eventual demise for since so many different bodies were fitted to his frames, many were not instantly identifiable as Bucklers. One might say that the company’s products lacked corporate image.
Some cars which were really Bucklers even went under other names. There was, for example, the “Burdmonk” (BU for Buckler, RD for Ford (gearbox), MO for Morris (engine) and NK for Nigel Kennedy, the car’s builder). Not all Bucklers even had a Buckler badge. When the buyer of a chassis completed his car, if he took the car to Derek Buckler, or sent a photograph, and the finished vehicle passed muster, then Derek would present the owner with an enamel badge. The flip side of that was that some of the amateur efforts put onto Buckler frames were dreadful and did not enhance the company’s reputation. Some customers were happy to pay around £60 for a frame but baulked at paying £110 for a professional body (Mk V, 1951 prices).
Of perhaps more than 400 Bucklers, few were built as complete cars by the works, all but six of them being exported, and the six which were-built for use at home were all prototypes. Mark Cook, a director of Bucklers, argued that finished cars should be marketed along with the kits, but that went against Buckler’s vision.
When cars like the Mini and Sprite became available, the special market took a nose-dive. Had Buckler Cars been as firmly entrenched in the sporting public’s mind as, say, Lotus or Elva, the marque might have had a better chance of survival. As it was, it was too completely associated with the special market even though the ingenuity of the frames should have associated it with the “specialist”, rather than “special” builders.
Another reason for the company’s decline was the fact that it never really got itself onto a sound financial footing and one reason for this was Derek’s inability to refuse a challenge.to his ingenuity. Mark Cook says that he tried to persuade Derek to keep the production of his cars on a rational basis, specialising in Ford-based cars. “The trouble was that someone would come along and say, ‘I like the idea but I’d like to fit an MG engine.’ Instead of telling the chap that he was sorry but he built a production chassis for Ford parts, Derek would go away and spend hours working on the problem until the customer basically got a bespoke chassis at an off-the-peg-price. Derek never understood just how expensive it was to make prototype frames and he refused to seek outside financing.”
The result of Derek’s approach was over two dozen distinctive Buckler frames. Nine types of production chassis were listed in the company’s literature but an article published in 1960 emphasises that 14 were then available, though this was a hypothetical figure since many on offer were one-offs waiting for a second order. A one-off 500 cc F3 frame (Buckler’s only single-seater) was built for Ken Smith and it won, among other successes, a race at Silverstone for non-series production 500 cc cars. This chassis was advertised but found no other takers and so falls into the category “bespoke”. One customer had a V12 Lincoln engine installed, another had a Jaguar engine (it was known as the “Jaguara” and was fairly famous in its day). Whatever the customer’s problem, Derek worked into the night to solve it and this frantic activity undoubtedly contributed to his death, in 1964, from a stroke following a period of declining health.
Mark Cook remembers Derek as a man who had little time for anything outside his work, he had no other hobbies, though he was interested in politics and unsuccessfully stood for Reading Council as a Conservative in 1950. Malcolm Buckler remembers him as an excellent father, a man who was warm and friendly away from work, and a lover of good food and wine. There was one other reason why the company began to tail off as the Fifties drew to an end and that was inherent in Derek’s dream of making motor sport accessible to Everyman. When he started building his cars, an impecunious enthusiast really could made a practical road car which could be driven to a circuit, hill climb or sprint and indulge himself. As the Fifties drew on, however, every branch of the sport became more and more specialised and you could no longer use one vehicle for both circuit racing and trials as Derek had been able to with DPP 201. In attempting to build dualpurpose cars, Buckler had to make compromises. As road cars they left something to be desired, few having any luggage space or even crude weather protection. As competition cars, they were not sufficiently specialised to compete successfully after the mid-Fifties. Charles Bulmer urged Buckler to adopt wishbone front suspension and had he done so in 1953/5 it would have been well before Lotus which did not switch from swing axle ifs until 1957. The split axle, though, was mandatory for 1172 racing and anyway Derek believed it was adequate for the job. Split axle ifs with transverse leaf spring was usual on Bucklers throughout the company’s history, though cars were also with Morris Minor, TR3 and MGA front suspension while the last production design, the DD2, had a split axle with coil springs.
Buckler Cars was an idea for a time, and that time changed quickly. During their natural period, up to around 1955, they met a need and, in fact, Derek was both an inspiration for, and a prime mover of, the 1,172 cc racing formula. Although his successful period was a short one, Derek Buckler left a tangible legacy in that formula and a less tangible one in the way that he demonstrated that it was possible to set up in business as a sports car maker. That lead was followed by many, some of whom later ate into Buckler’s market.
Soon after production of the Mk V and Mk VI models came the Mk X (Ford E93A-based) and the longer wheelbased Mk XI (using “Prefect” parts). In these cars the side tubes by the door openings were narrowed to allow full occupant access. The main feature of this car was that it was a line-abreast three-seater.
Given the nature of Buckler cars, there was no standard version but Peter Silverthorne’s Mk X, which is close to completion after a rebuild, can stand as being typical of what an owner might have made.
The C. F. Taylor body looks a little like a small and squashed Healey Abbott. Ballamy 15 in wheels are fitted in place of Ford’s 16 in or 17 in wheels. There is a hood, but it is one of those jigsaw arrangements of tubes and canvas, where the frame has first to be assembled and then the hood stretch over it. There is a boot which would carry enough luggage for the three occupants to go away for a weekend. The car is powered by a Ford E93A engine fitted with a Ford Eight E04A head, to raise the compression ratio to 7.6: 1 (an early Buckler ploy) and there are twin 1 1/8 in SUs and Buckler manifolds. It’s not the sort of car to make the pulse beat faster, but it’s a decent, practical, little vehicle which could have happily been used for races, rallies and trials in 1950, when the model was announced, and which would have given an owner a lot of pride and pleasure at relatively little outlay.
The Mk X was in production between 1950 and ’53 and, though it was conceived as a sporting tourer, it had a share of Buckler competition successes. One Mk X was fitted with a fibreglass body (by Galt-Glass) in early 1953. A piece in Autosport (8.5.53) claims this was the first British-made fibreglass car body. Shortly afterwards, a Mk V had a simple “resin-bonded fibre-glass body” made by Versil Ltd of Liversedge, Yorkshire.
Buckler’s advertisements in the early Fifties proudly listed the competition successes, in a wide variety of events, achieved by customers. After 1954 these began to tail off somewhat but, for a while, every new advertisement brought a fresh tally of wins and places. To put these into .context is difficult. A maker now would not nationally advertise a class win in a sprint or a race win in a Silverstone “clubbie” such as the SUNBAC Meeting. In the early Fifties, though, it was possible that the SUNBAC Meeting was the only race meeting on a particular weekend and therefore had an importance which is difficult to translate into contemporary terms when we may have ten or a dozen meetings over a Bank Holiday weekend. Derek Buckler’s dream of allowing Everyman to compete was, for a while, a reality. A Buckler advertisement (Autosport, 10.10.52) was able to list ten first places, five seconds and two thirds gained by Bucklers in the previous two months.
By 1953, Buckler Cars was offering the .bases for seven models, the Mks V & VI, and Mks X & XI, the Mks XV & XVI and the Mk 53. The Mk XV was a low-built car (28 in from the ground to the top of the scuttle) which was based on Morris Minor components. The Mk XVI which was higher and with a longer wheelbase combined Morris Minor front suspension with MG TC or TD components. Nobody can now say how many were supplied but the general consensus is “few”.
In 1953 Derek Buckler recognised that the sport was changing rapidly and so built his first specialised chassis, the Mk 53, which was designed specifically for Trials events. In the same year distributors were appointed in Canada and New Zealand and were shortly followed by one in Australia. A number of Bucklers still compete regularly in New Zealand. The size of New Zealand and the spread of the population means that motoring is essential yet, for a long time, spares were scarce so your yeoman Kiwi had to improvise. This is one reason why there are so many Kiwi mechanics in motor racing. The islands were prime Buckler country.
At the beginning of 1954 Derek launched the “Ninety” the one model which is instantly recognisable as a “Buckler”. With a modified Ford Ten engine, a top speed of 90 mph was claimed with 0-60 mph in 12 seconds. Buckler stuck out for his modified Ford axle complete with transverse leaf spring but went to some trouble to tune the spring. Although this arrangement may appear old fashioned alongside the idea of coil springs and wishbones, transverse leaf spring suspension was featured at the rear of; the contemporary Maserati 250F, to give but one example. In some other respects it appeared to be behind the times, with cable operated brakes and Ford live axle mounted in typical Buckler fashion with parallel trailing arms and coil springs and dampers but it would be fairer to say that it was not complying to fashion rather than being outdated. Arthur Mallock has been proving for over a quarter of a century that a properly located live axle is an effective item of kit.
The car was low (29 in to the top of the scuttle, assisted by 13 in wheels), light (83/4 cwt) and had a frontal area of only 93/4 sq ft. By the standards of the day, it was an advanced design though shortly afterwards Colin Chapman unveiled his rather more sophisticated Lotus VIII with its Frank Costin body.
The Ninety was soon winning 1172 races both in Britain and in Canada and New Zealand. George Brown managed to win the 1955 Ardmore (NZ) Handicap race in a Ninety setting joint fastest lap at 70.6 mph and his average speed was less than 10 mph slower than that of Bira whose Maserati won the New Zealand Grand Prix at the same meeting. Ray Wickson, probably the best driver to race a works Buckler is of the opinion that the Ninety was the finest handling car he’d used on the track, being completely predictable and controllable.
In fact it’s hard to assess how good the cars were. Derek Buckler’s philosophy attracted a particular type of driver, the enthusiastic clubman rather than the man who had his eyes set on a serious career in the sport. There appears to be no rising star of the day who drove both a Buckler and, say, a Lotus or Cooper, so is not possible to obtain an opinion from someone who would have driven the Ninety and one or more of its rivals to the limit. Club drivers, however, seemed to find all Bucklers to their liking, they tended to be cars which were on the side of their drivers. Although Bucklers appeared a couple of times in International class races held in Britain; they were essentially dual-purpose cars for the amateur driver.
In 1955 Buckler produced the DDl (basically a Ninety with a de Dion rear axle) which was intended for Coventry Climax or MG engines. The frame had to be changed for the Climax engine would not fit into a ‘Ninety. It was the discovery of this fact, incidentally, which prompted Air Commodore Geoffrey Tyndall-Carrill-Worsley, the Commandant of RAF Halton, to beg the components to build the Halton Tojeiro which has been the subject of some recent correspondence in Motor Sport.
The introduction of inexpensive fibreglass bodies for special builders led Buckler to design frames to accommodate them. Buckler’s last production car, the DD2, was designed with the Microplas Mistral body in mind but although a car with this body appeared in all the advertisements, cars were built with a wide variety of shells. Buckler had a modified DD2 frame for the Rochdale GT body, for example, while the now defunct magazine, Cars Illustrated, built a Buckler with a supercharged BMC Series B engine and very attractive AKS fibreglass body which bore more than a passing resemblance to a contemporary Alfa Romeo .Spider. The Rochdale-based car, incidentally, was designed in conjunction with Mike Bendall (of Alexis) and used Lotus XI suspension and various other bits and pieces from other cars of the period. Two are known to survive, one of which sports an “Alexis” badge. There is some disagreement between the Buckler Register and the owner, Duncan Rabagliati, as to the car’s pedigree.
In August 1956 Buckler advertised seven models: Ninety, DDl, DD2, Mk V, Mk XI, Mk XV and Mk XVI though thereafter all his advertisements concentrated on the DD2, though doubtless any frame could be ordered. This car would accept any engine up to 2-litres and estimated top speeds (calculated by Mark Cook) appeared in the company’s literature, so 140 mph and 0-60 mph in 6 seconds was claimed with a 1.5- litre Coventry Climax engine.
Karting came to Britain in 1960 and it was a category tailor-made for Derek Buckler, being low cost motor racing using steel frames. Buckler designed karts for three of the four classes of the time, Class 1 (100 cc), Class 2 (two 100 cc engines but no gearbox) and Class 4 (200 cc with gearbox). These all had attractive spaceframes and while the smaller-engined karts were too heavy to be successful, Buckler’s Class 4 machines were, for a time, very competitive indeed, especially when fitted with a Bultaco engine. In common with most kart makers of those pioneering years, Buckler made a fundamental error in creating a too-stiff frame. While everybody was doing so, it was fine but the advent of lighter and more flexible frames changed karting.
By 1961 Derek was in failing health and his natural market was declining. To continue, he needed an injection of finance and he refused to seek it. The car business was not only not making money, it was becoming a drain on Bucklers. He sold Buckler Cars while retaining Bucklers, the engineering firm. He remained a consultant to the new owners, a Mr Luff and a Mr Fletcher, who kept going until 1964 before the firm was liquidated. These latter years are outside the scope of this article and, besides, the firm concentrated mainly on karting.
Derek did not live to see the failure of the company he founded for he suffered a stroke in 1964, went into hospital and slowly passed away. He was just 53 years old.
It’s difficult to assess Derek as a designer because of the conscious limitations he put on his own work. He remained faithful to his vision of offering an opportunity for a large number of people to own cars which could be used for everyday motoring and entered into competitions at weekends. His early spaceframes were more advanced than any other chassis on the market and if his later products were overtaken by designers such as Colin Chapman, part of the reason was Buckler’s insistence that his cars be dual-purpose and so he never went for the ultimate either in competition terms or in terms of making production sports cars.
Mark Cook believes that Buckler was Chapman’s equal as a chassis designer and Mark does not look back on his Buckler days through rose-tinted glasses. For all his insistence on inexpensive Ford components, Buckler was a man capable of innovation and his last design was a backbone multi- tube chassis (BB 100) in which Chapman took a great deal of interest when it was exhibited at the 1960 Racing Car Show. This was some time before the Lotus Elan. Such interest would not have flattered Buckler for he was slightly paranoid about Lotus stealing his ideas and for that reason all his blueprints were kept at home.
Although the BB 100 was satisfactorily developed, after teething troubles with the rear cross frame flexing, only two were made, the new owners of Buckler Cars not pursuing the idea. The prototype car is now owned by Derek’s younger son, Malcolm, who lives on the Isle of Man. Malcolm also has a DD2 with which he occasionally takes part in competitions.
Buckler’s real successes were not on the track, they were in the pride and pleasure of owners who were able to realise a dream of owning a car with performance otherwise beyond their means. Part of his success, too, was in the fact that schoolboys, such as this writer, were able to reasonably dream of going racing.
Derek Buckler is so often ignored when viewing the growth of post-war British motor racing. I hope this article helps to restore him to the position which is rightfully his. -M.L.